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David Remnick
February 02, 1987
Josephine Abercrombie has brought an unlikely new presence to boxing
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February 02, 1987

Fighting Lady

Josephine Abercrombie has brought an unlikely new presence to boxing

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For years, for centuries it seems, boxers have tried to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, a frizzy-haired ex-con named Don King and a wiley Harvard lawyer named Bob Arum. King and Arum control the financial side of the sport. One would not want to cast any aspersions in this space, but it is not unfair to say that King and Arum, while of differing casts, have similar, titanic reputations. Few have escaped one or the other. There are some lucky ones. Sugar Ray Leonard is well served by Mike Trainer, and young Olympic gold medalist Mark Breland has an honorable handler in Shelly Finkel. There are a few others who speak up for fairness to the fighter. May their tribe increase.

For the last four years word has passed in prizefighting that another such figure has entered the business—an immensely wealthy woman in Houston who has adored the prize ring from the moment her parents took a glamorous three-day train ride to New York in June 1938 and she saw Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling in the first round. "My mother was just settling her skirts and all of a sudden there was this man lying on the canvas! She said, 'You mean we came all this way to see that?' Well, my mother couldn't understand it, but I was just fascinated!"

Who could resist the idea of Josephine Abercrombie, so primped and perfumed, in a sport that smells like the snuffed-out end of an old cigar? And how did the fight game greet her? "When I got into it, I think everyone thought I was playing or kidding around," she says one evening at home. "It was like, 'Who's that old broad? She doesn't know what she's doing. It's a game for her. She'll get tired of it.' " The estimable Eileen Eaton used to promote fights on the West Coast from 1942 until she retired in 1980. By phone from Los Angeles she says, "It's not easy, my boy. Men don't want to do business with a woman. Not in boxing they don't. I wonder how Miss Abercrombie is doing."

Abercrombie lives alone in the River Oaks section of Houston, the opulent neighborhood of her girlhood, where ersatz Spanish abuts ersatz Colonial abuts ersatz Bauhaus. Her own manse is behind a wall and shaded by dozens of trees.

The house is a clash of ambitions, a combination of Texas nouveau bigness and quasi-European glitz, with Louis XIV furniture and conspicuous antique volumes of Austen, Richardson, Dickens and Smollet. To guard it all from invaders she has a working alarm and a weimaraner attack dog named Bunker. "Bunker can attack, but I don't know how to make him stop," she says. "Isn't that something?"

The most genuine extension of Abercrombie and her passions here is the horsiness of the paintings and the rest of the library. There are racing prints and portraits on nearly every wall. Issues of the Daily Racing Form dangle from long spindles. Vernon's History and Romance of the Horse and Bayliss's Matriarchy of the American Turf are among the most used-looking volumes in the place.

"I love horses more than anything, don't you?"

The only child of Mr. Jim Abercrombie and the former Miss Lillie Frank, of Lake Charles, La., little Josephine was torn between her father's thoroughbreds and hunting dogs and her mother's acute sense of southern ladyhood. To look at her, so slender, polite and charming, you would think that Abercrombie is Miss Lillie's girl through and through. It was, however, the horses who won out.

She was obsessed with animals of all kinds from the start. When the family was living in a suite at Houston's Warwick Hotel she kept rabbits, birds, chickens, ducks and an alligator in the pantry. She learned to ride at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and at her father's ranch, just south of San Antonio. "I loved it. I loved being with him."

By the time she was 28, Abercrombie had taken 12 first-place ribbons at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had featured her in a story called The Lady Who Won Too Often (Nov. 1, 1954). She was portrayed as "retiring, with a contempt for flamboyance that makes Garbo seem gaudy. She pales at the mention of money, reddens at the words 'Edna Ferber' and took to her bed at the Hotel Pierre during a recent visit when a gossip columnist reported her weekly allowance to be $25,000. ('Absolutely fantastic!')...She hates stuffed shirts, fish and hats, in that order, although she recently commissioned Mr. John to design her 'a hat that wouldn't scare a horse. She likes white gloves, chocolate in any form and hamburgers. 'I love your apartment,' she said recently to Betty Betz, a friend with whom she stays often in New York. 'It's so convenient to Harry Winston (a local diamond merchant) and Hamburg Heaven.' "

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